I want to come back to a previous post, in which I reflected on adult perspectives on children’s literature by asking what certain adult characters might have made of their part in a child’s story. Here, I want to reflect as an older adult on the transformative character of the Great Grandmother in Lucy Boston’s Children of Green Knowe.
At the start of the Green Knowe sequence, Toseland – Tolly – is a rootless child, in need of a place to belong. I think that’s why I first liked him; I felt a connection. On the other hand, his great- grandmother, Linnet Oldknow has almost nothing but belonging, and it’s sometimes tempting to think that before Tolly’s arrival she has almost nothing but shadows. Occasional friends, some contact with her gardener and his family and then… then evenings in a big house full of history: whispers, half-heard singing, childhoods she can sort of remember, sort of touch. Evenings and evenings of silence.
As I grow older (and in welcoming my children’s children into our house I can see the pleasure she gets) I find myself wondering about what the incidents at the heart of The Children mean to her. She is challenged to allow Tolly into her life, and while she does so with exceptional good grace it requires her to share her history, good and bad with a boy passionate to share her sense of belonging, to share her shadows. Such, perhaps, is family.
What I share with my father and shared with his mother, was Lancastrian Catholicism, and the Laudian Anglicanism of the Oldknows both chimed with me and intrigued: like but unlike. I wasn’t much bothered about – and still don’t really know – how very minor seigneurial Catholics ended up in a terrace house in Blackburn (no Green Knowe for me!), but I was concerned with our family ghost, Lady Dorothy, and with our more-than-ghostly connection to a C17th past in Blessed John Southworth. My grandma went to Rome for his canonisation in 1970, much as, if she’d “been spared” (a phrase of hers) she might have come to her grandchildren’s graduations. Grandma shared stories of the Grey Lady at Salmesbury Hall, the stories of John Southworth, the stories of the Pendle Witches. I guess, to be crass, it’s called heritage, (and heritage was what Lucy Boston wanted (like Tolly), so she wrote herself into the history of her own house in the persona of the great-grandmother much like Kipling wrote himself into the valley where he lived). She -and my dad – changed our family into one full of possibility.
I am intrigued by how Mrs Oldknow reacts to Tolly in those first meetings: warm, but clear in her expectations, she leaves nothing to be unsettling and yet everything is unsettling – for both of them. Mrs Oldknow, as Lucy Boston writes her, brings out the stories she has lived with, in the ghosts and the artefacts of the ancient manor house and allows Tolly to be drawn into them with near-fatal consequences. At the climactic confrontation with the family’s curse she is almost powerless.
But it is her stories and her presence that brings all this to life: as they survive (and they do, through other books), her calmness, her understanding of the past transforms the manor into something truly wonderful. Story as represented by Linnet Oldknow (and my grandma) does not necessarily transform into a hubristic new-and-improved, but illuminates the past and therefore brings a greater understanding .